Skin-Whitening in Southeast Asia

This week our theme is “The Many Shades of Beauty.” In order to highlight this topic, I want to focus on an issue prominent in Southeast Asia: skin-whitening.

Let me set the scene: I’m at a mini-mart in the middle of a jungle an hour outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand with 4 other of my fellow elephant campers. I’m going through the isles to find bar soap, and Nicole–a native to Connecticut, USA prior to this trip she’s been teaching in Taiwan for 2 years–says, “be careful what you buy here, a lot of their beauty products have skin whitening agents in them, even soap.” Living in America for so long, I find it ironic that 3rd world women pay to potentially put themselves at health risks for lighter skin & American women do the same for “tan” skin.

So what’s up with this stigma against dark skin in Southeast Asian countries? In his NY Times article, “Glamour at a price in Asia,” Thomas Fuller states, “In Thailand, as in other countries in the region, the stigma of darker skin is rooted in language. One common insult is ‘tua dam,’ or black body, a rude term to degrade someone of lower social standing.”

Regarding the mention of language, Mary Daly in “The Metapatriarchal Journey of Exorcism and Ecstasy from Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism,” questions the genealogy of words: who gets to shape our languages? And why did they/do they choose to do so? Daly believes that feminists must attempt to reclaim these derogatory words; I believe that her claim not only applies to 1st world women but to women all around the world.

In relation to my native language, Vietnamese, the term “lai den” also has a negative stigma associated with it; this term refers to an individual mixed with any African heritage. From where did the negative stigma associated with darker skin color arise? Well, from what I was taught, back in the olden days, skin color represented social status. Those with darker skin were so because of the amount of time they spent working in the field; hence, those with lighter skin were so because they didn’t have to work.

Only when we learn about the history of language can we deconstruct these notions towards certain skin colors in America and Around the World.

Below is a photo of one of the many bar soaps they sold at the mini-mart I was at: 71hUH9U5JAL._SY355_


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